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  • The Narrative Project

Achieving Police Accountability and the Cost of Progress

By Mercy Quaye

June 26, 2020

People participating in a rally to show support for law enforcement officers march toward the state Capitol July 23, 2020, in Hartford.
Photo courtesy of CTInsider

Change ain’t easy. Especially when policing is involved.

After sitting for nearly 24 straight hours in a special session last Thursday into Friday, two state representatives, Jesse MacLachlan, R-35, and Quentin Phipps, D-100, used the same word to describe their feeling immediately following the ordeal: Raw.

House Bill 6004: An Act Concerning Police Accountability attracted hundreds of testimonies from across the state and resulted in an eight-hour discussion early Friday morning. The bill ultimately passed the House with an 86-58 vote. But the tied vote on the amendment to strike the qualified immunity portion of the bill is far more interesting to me.

That tie, in part, was due to hearts that changed after the killing of George Floyd.

“After that incident, I got a call from Representative MacLachlan from the shoreline and he asked how he could help,” Phipps said on a phone call with me just a couple of hours after the vote. Having bonded over their Christian faith in the past, Phipps said he welcomed the call; it’s just that “At the time I didn’t think much of it, but he made the right vote today and I’ll never forget that kind of bravery.”

MacLachlan was the only Republican vote against the amendment to repeal qualified immunity. And after spending the last several weeks working diligently to understand the issues, his vote Thursday stood in sharp contrast from his previous votes on police accountability. The reason for that, he said, was he wanted to get it right.

On a call Friday morning after the vote, MacLachlan sounded heavy, weighted by the events of the previous night. Through a solemn conversation, he walked me through his commitment to understanding the issues, especially issues from communities of which he’s not a part.

For him, making a “well-informed” decision meant reaching out for guidance.

“After (voting against the previous police accountability bill) he asked himself why,” Sen. Gary Winfield, D-10, said. “I think what he realized was that he was operating as a part of a unit. And even though he was hearing the arguments from people with lived experiences and knew it made sense, he still voted against it. This time, he sat with the (Black and Puerto Rican Caucus) and came to hear from them.”

MacLachlan said his path to understanding the issues starting with emailing the BPRC’s aide to set up a meeting. That meeting quickly resulted in a Zoom call. There he sat, he listened, he empathized and the only commitment he made was to continue to do so.

He maintains that it wasn’t perfect, but it was the right thing to do.

“I strongly believe that every single member of the state legislature is doing what they believe is right,” he said in an emailed statement. “Enhancing the safety, security, and freedoms of all Connecticut residents is my top priority. After careful consideration, I believe that the bill we voted on today effectively bolsters both public safety and accountability.”

While MacLachlan was the only Republican vote against the amendment, the weight of that vote only mattered because of the 15 Democratic votes in favor of it. To Winfield, that split is a clear indication that the issue didn’t fall neatly on party lines.

“I think those are cultural, racial, experiential lines,” he said. “They say all politics are local politics, but I think all politics are identity politics, because wherever I go I’m a Black man, and that has everything to do with my experience.”

When he brings forth or votes on a bill, Winfield said he tries to remember that his actions as a legislator aren’t for him.

“I don’t have time to luxuriate in the victory because I still have to fix the problems with housing, incarceration and education access,” he said. “If you’re really doing this work you don’t get a break. My work has always been about the people I represent. If it’s ever about me and no one else, then I’m not doing the right work.”

This time, his and the work of several Black legislators during discussion on the bill meant offering their traumatic policing stories up in a prostration-like demonstration to prove imperative for the bill.

“I do it hoping that my pain is enough for you to recognize that I’m human like you are — knowing that it’s often not,” he said. “As much as I don’t want to do it, given that we need to win, I know I need to.”

As it stands, the bill includes much of the original language rolling back qualified immunity and allows civil lawsuits to move forward against police officers in state court. This key piece, coupled with a number of the other police accountability measures Winfield has proposed and championed, will go a long way toward addressing concerns from evidently over-policed Black and brown communities.

“It’s important because when the system fails us — and it always does — we need the power to say, ‘I’m going to court,’” he said.

Opponents of the bill have contested the removal of qualified immunity, asserting that is isn’t a fair measure and will punish officers when they inadvertently commit a crime. But when civilians inadvertently commit crimes, aren’t they held accountable? People in uniforms, with weapons and the power to apprehend people when they so please, should be held to the same standard — if not higher.

Getting this bill over the finish line in the House required emotional sacrifices and potentially political ones, as well. After posting a Facebook status detailing the reason he voted for the bill and against the amendment, MacLachlan’s post was rushed with comments that people will pull their support of him in the next election and joked about leveraging qualified immunity to sue him for his support of the bill.

He maintains that it wasn’t perfect, but it was the right thing to do.

“Certainly there were parts in the bill that needed to be reworked or else really good police officers would have (been) hurt,” he said. “And we incorporated a number of the changes that would be needed to protect officers from an onslaught of lawsuits because we don’t want officers to be driven from their post. But it still gives communities an avenue to protect themselves. The bill was about keeping all the members of all our community safe.”

We don’t often celebrate people for a change of heart or doing something just. But for me it’s important to give people an example of what doing the right thing can look like, particularly when doing the right means going against a political machine and an entire party or profession.

MacLachlan and Rep. Anthony Nolan, D-39, who is a New London police officer, are both likely to see an incredible backlash in response to their votes in favor of the bill, which is slated for a vote before the Senate this week. That, Winfield said, is the cost of progress.

“Just because something is the right thing to do doesn’t mean it’s as easy as we think it is.”

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